Lena - Emerge Tour
The “Pride of Plovdiv,” Bulgarian long jumper Elena “Lena” Atanasova was favored to win gold at the 1981 European Athletics Indoor Championships held in Grenoble, France. However, a spontaneous groin injury forced her to pull out moments before her first run-up. In the ensuing confusion, Atanasova seized the opportunity and disappeared into the crowd, implementing her backup plan: defecting to the West.
Atanasova made her way to England and eventually settled in Manchester, where she became the hostess at the lesser of the two Bulgarian restaurants in the city. She enjoyed the work (plus the shkembe chorba tasted like home), but she felt like she was missing out on something. A chance meeting in June 1984 with a local record producer who “liked her look” led to an audition. (Although not a musician by training, Atanasova had appeared in various preteen school productions singing patriotic Communist anthems, to some acclaim.) The producer liked what he heard well enough to sign her to a third-tier label. She did not write songs or play any instruments, but the producer took care of that, gathering material from a stable of unknown but hungry writers and enlisting the label’s house band, The Destruction Unit. Six months later, Atanasova (now only going by her diminutive nickname) released her debut—and only—album, Emerge.
After a very short tour of the UK in the spring of 1985—which somehow broke even—the label decided to send Lena to America for a summer tour of small East Coast clubs and two Mazda dealership openings. (The company was a minor underwriter.) While the audiences in the larger cities were mildly receptive to her quirky stage presence and unusual “I can’t place it” accent, Lena could not get traction in the smaller towns; her songs and performances were just too avant-garde compared to the music of the day (Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis, Starship). The American tour was a bust, Emerge was a flop, and Lena’s label soon dropped her.
A pragmatist (who, if asked, would admit she really was not that into music), Lena shifted gears and returned to her roots. After much effort (including some difficult visa snags), she secured a position coaching the boys track team at a high school in Richmond, Virginia. She was very popular. For over 15 years, the team routinely placed seventh in the state finals.
Now retired, Lena resides in Alabama. She currently focuses on perfecting her zelevi sarmi.
Original tour poster here.
"Together" (from Emerge) here.